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Managing With A Soul

2016 June 26
by Greg Satell

“Managing without soul has become an epidemic in society. Many managers these days seem to specialize in killing cultures, at the expense of human engagement.” That’s what management guru Henry Mintzberg recently wrote about the current state of corporate culture on his blog.

Too make matters even worse, he points out that many executives are actually trained to operate that way at MBA programs. While business schools teach technocratic skills, such as finance, optimization and resource management, they do very little in the way of strengthening souls.

Sadly, corporate culture discussions usually devolve into buzzwords, like “authenticity.” And while Mintzberg says that after a half century of studying organizations he can get a sense of an one’s soul “in an instant,” he offers little guidance how to develop one. The truth is that you don’t find your soul inside yourself, but by finding your place in the world.

The Efficiency Paradox

In 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, based on his experience as a manager in a steel factory.  It took aim at traditional management methods and suggested a more disciplined approach. Rather than have workers pursue tasks in their own manner, he sought to find “the one best way” and train accordingly.

Taylor wrote, “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”

Before long, Taylor’s ideas became gospel, spawning offshoots such as scientific marketing, financial engineering and the six sigma movement. It was no longer enough to simply work hard, you had to measure, analyze and optimize everything. Over the years these ideas have become so central to business thinking that they are rarely questioned.

Yet perhaps they should be. In The Good Jobs Strategy, MIT professor Zeynep Ton shows that retailers that take an over-optimized approach often underperform those with “soul.” Another study found that of 58 large companies that have announced Six Sigma programs, 91 percent trailed the S&P 500 in stock performance.

That, in essence, is the efficiency paradox. When you manage only what you can measure, you end up ignoring key factors to success.

Managing For Mission

The truth is, the culture of an enterprise is driven by how it honors its mission. If that mission is to generate shareholder value exclusively, practices will reflect that and it will show. Needs of other stakeholders, such as customers and employees, get short shrift. This might not mean much for the next earnings report, but in the long term it is decisive.

Take IBM for example, whose mission is to create cutting edge technology. While it has had its ups and downs over the last century, it’s commitment to fundamental research has enabled it to survive long after its early competitors went bust. Today, it’s developing breakthroughs in cognitive computing, quantum computing and neuromorphic chips.

MD Anderson Center Cancer is another organization with soul. Its President, Ron Depinho told me that he feels that now is the time to make a “decisive assault on the cancer problem.” That’s what allows him to recruit the world’s top scientists, attract funding for their research and keep them motivated through the ups and downs that are inevitable in their work.

Yet not every mission needs to be so lofty. I remember once walking into a sunglass shop just off the main square in Vienna. I wasn’t intending to buy anything, but the salesman was so persuasive I ended up walking out with a pair. When I asked what his secret was, he said, “I just see every face as waiting for the perfect pair of sunglasses and try my best to find it.”

Now that was a sunglass shop with a soul!

Hiring—And Firing—For Soul

Clearly, organizations don’t literally have souls. An enterprise takes on the appearance of a soul when its people feel they are pursuing their own personal missions. Great customer service comes from those who enjoy serving others and are given the space to do so. Products acquire a soul when they reflect the passion of those who design and build them.

So it’s incredibly important that you bring the right people into your organization. Everybody has their own ideas about the attributes they want in employees—I was always partial to curiosity and temperament—but the one constant is that you need to hire people who can make the organization’s mission their own.

It also means that you need to get rid of people who don’t share the mission of the enterprise. Somebody can be extremely capable objectively, but if they don’t share the goals and values of your organization they will only diminish its collective soul. That’s one reason I’ve found it important to fire nasty people.

Letting people go is the worst part of a manager’s job, but over time it’s come to bother me less. There are very few jobs—Navy SEAL, heart surgeon and a few others—that require special skills. If someone isn’t performing they probably don’t want to be there anyway and are usually better off someplace where they can pursue a mission that suits them better.

The Dignity Of The Enterprise

The 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed strongly in the notion of dignity, which he defined as treating people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. As I’ve explained before, the same principle applies managing an enterprise. Nobody wants to be a cog in somebody else’s machine.

When you treat people as ends in themselves you make their goals your own. You want employees to do more than perform tasks, but to attain their potential. You see customers as more than a way to pay the bills, but as central to the mission of the enterprise. You want communities to be invested in your success, rather than just tolerate your existence.

Some very successful companies have put dignity at the center of how they run their business.  Zappos pays its employees a bonus to leave after a training period, because the firm realizes how important it is that people actually want to work there. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman suggests that managers treat staff as allies, rather than underlings.

And it is through dignity that an organization acquires a soul, because it is through serving others that we find purpose for ourselves. As Mintzberg himself has said,” An enterprise is a community of human beings, not a collection of ‘human resources’”.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael Breeden permalink
    June 26, 2016

    Very nice commentary, but are you claiming one should apply a human factor to industry and commerce? How quaint. It almost sounds like you are saying industry should serve people, not the other way. … Not sure about your fashion sense. I will mention a peculiar point you will probably claim supports your position. Consider Bank of America, everyone’s second to Goldman’s Sachs in the category of Evil Financial Conglomerate. I found to my amusement that its charter is one of the most moral statements imaginable. Would you believe? They state that their purpose is to serve the community. Imagine, as a California bank, they claim the reason for their structure, including that everyone works from a notebook computer, is that if there is a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, they must be the first back in operation before everyone else can get going. It almost sounds like they believe it. Must be a historic thing. The bizarre part is that such sillinous is not confined to B of A. Many major corporations have similar charters with drivel about serving the community and fulfilling a need.

  2. June 28, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Michael.

    – Greg

  3. June 30, 2016

    “If someone isn’t performing they probably don’t want to be there anyway and are usually better off someplace where they can pursue a mission that suits them better.”

    …or they’re completely demoralized by management, don’t see a future, and just want to give up on life, while they desperately need the job and the money to feed their families.

    I know SO MANY people like that.

    Also, of course, no training and no potential growth combined with loyalty to their peers is a deadly combination. Should they just say “I don’t care” and move on? Is that what management has come to?

  4. July 2, 2016

    It’s a valid point. Thanks Christopher.

    – Greg

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